Semuc Champey and the KanBa Caves

August 23, 2015

Having arrived fairly late the night before to the Utopia Eco-Lodge, I basically had dinner (vegetarian lasagna, garlic bread, and a home-made brownie — not bad) and went to bed. However, I was told by several guests and staff that I should consider the tour the next day of Semuc Champey and the KanBa caves. Both of these places were on my list to visit, and since I really only had a day to spend there, it made sense to sign up for the tour and see it all rather than waste time wandering around on my own trying to figure it all out.

The tour was 185 Quetzales, or about $24. At 10am, about 15 of us piled into the back of a Toyota pickup and headed the mile and a half down to Las Marias, where the caves are located.

I can’t say enough about this part of the tour. This was absolutely incredible. Unfortunately I didn’t take my camera into the caves, but now I wish I had.

The basic cave concept is this: these caves have water running through them, and are on different levels (thus, waterfalls as well). In some places it’s ankle deep; in others you can’t touch and you have to swim. There are no lights in the caves. As you enter, the guide hands you a wax dinner candle. So you are depending on a candle to light your way as you swim through the darkness. And obviously you have to keep the candle dry while you’re swimming. Oh, and there are ropes strung though the caves to help guide you. So the other hand is busy also. Did I mention you have to swim in the dark, while holding a candle in one hand and rope line in the other?

There are also places where you have to climb up or down, or swim under a rock ledge into the next cave. And there’s a waterfall that you have to climb up using a knotted rope. As the water is crashing down on you. In relative darkness. At this point, your candle is not going to survive and you have to relight it at the top.

The entire cave tour takes about an hour to an hour and a half, but is well worth it. Even with all the other cool stuff, this was definitely the highlight of the tour.

I grabbed this photo from the web of others in the KanBa caves with their dinner candles.

After the caves, we went for a quick swim in the river just below the pools. The Cahabon River runs underground for nearly a thousand feet, and the pools at Semuc Champey sit on top of the river.


In this photo, the pools are above us, draining over the edge, and the river is exiting the cave on the far left side.

Ancient Mayan Happy Face carving


After our swim, we hiked up to the Mirador to look down at the pools of Semuc Champey. This hike is some serious UP for about 45 minutes. It’s a lot of stairs, steps, and ledges. Eventually you arrive at the Mirador platform, and the view is magnificent.


Then we hiked down to the pools, and went for another swim. There are five pools, and we swam in each. The limestone is extremely slippery in and around the pools. This is mostly not a good thing, but it did make for some good slides between pools.

In the fourth pool from the top is an interesting feature. Up against the limestone face of the pool above is a small opening about eight to ten inches high. If you hold your breath and duck under, you can come up inside the limestone, in a space just tall enough to keep your face above water. It runs along the face of the ledge for quite a ways, and because the water is so clear, the sunlight reflected inside this “cave” tube makes it really bright. At the other end, you hold your breath, duck down and swim out. This is one of those things you’d probably never find or experience without a guide.

To end the day, we grabbed tubes and floated the river back from Semuc Champey to Utopia. There are several small rapids along the way, with rocks in the river, that you have to negotiate. This would have all been good, except we got a late start, and the water was lower than usual and moving slower. Which meant we didn’t make it before dark.

Floating the river back to the lodge. People jump off of that bridge into the river. Some people. Not all people. Some people are smarter than that.

I got a kick out of the local kids and their marketing methods. They stand around at the point where you launch your tubes, with small coolers trying to sell you beer. Once you start floating down the river, they jump in tubes and float along with you, with an almost constant “Hey Mister, you wanna beer? My name is Juan. You wanna beer, you ask for Juan.” Takes a bit of the “tranquilo” out of the floating, but it was amusing.

Juan in the tube on the left with his red cooler selling beer as we float home. His main competitor on the right with the blue cooler. Can’t remember his name. Obviously didn’t have the marketing savvy of Juan.


At one point we had to portage around some particularly rough rapids, which required us to walk through a cornfield. I just thought this looked funny, walking through a cornfield with tubes, but no river in sight.


Yes, the water really is that color, and extremely clear. And yes, my legs really are that white.


Hmmm…beginning to get dark. How much further??


Okay, it’s really dark. Where’s that dinner candle from the cave? Look close, there’s someone there in a tube. You can only see them because of the camera flash. And yes, we rode the rapids over the rocks like this. And yes, I have the bruises to prove it.

Overall, it was an awesome day. Although I might skip the tube float home next time in order to get back before dark and get a shower before dinner. Might be the best $24 I’ve ever spent.

I also met some really cool people. Among them, Ben and Trishna from England:

Ben is one of those motivational people. Not the kind that preach it, but the kind that live it, and inspire others through his enthusiasm. He’s a teacher that had this idea to use dance to promote the freedoms that we have, and he’s dancing around the world. That’s right. No, he’s not going to different places and dancing. He is literally dancing his way across the globe. As he put it, it’s about the same pace as walking, so why not? He’s got a really cool site devoted to his goal. Just when you think you’ve seen it all… Go Ben!

As I’ve mentioned previously, I tend to avoid the touristy places and try to go where there are less foreigners. But sometimes you gotta go there. There was definitely more English being spoken at Utopia than I’ve heard in the past month, but it was okay. For a couple of days.

Now it’s back to Spanish. And time to work on it.

5 thoughts on “Semuc Champey and the KanBa Caves

  1. Pat, these are amazing posts. I am putting this destination on the list for the near future! Thank you for continuing to provide the excellent posts for those of us less fortunate that are still tied to a desk.

    • If you start slowly whittling on the leg of the desk, before long you’ll cut loose and no one will notice until it’s too late.
      I hope to see you in a future destination, even if the leg of the desk is still chained to you.

  2. Patricio, me da gusto que vas a estudiar espanol. Pues si te escribo en espanol, seria buena practica para ti en este tiempo de ensenanza. Espero poder alludarte con tus estudios. Buena suerte mi amigo.

    • Gracias amigo. Mi espanol esta mejorando, pero pratica, practica, practica…
      No es pan comida. 🙂

  3. I loved this post! We’re still plugging away on rebuilding the sailboat, but in less than 2 years we’ll have her cruising, and it won’t be long after that we are posting our own adventures. As far as being tied to a desk – blech. You would be amazed how cheaply you can live if you aren’t living in ‘Murica.

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